What is the evidence on the impact of research on international development?

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Governments of low-income countries and international development donors are increasing their funding for research at least in part on the assumption that research has positive impacts on socioeconomic development. Four pathways are commonly cited to describe how research will contribute to development:

1. Investment in research will drive economic growth
2. Investment in research will increase human capital
3. Investment in research will lead to the development of pro-poor products and technologies
4. Investment in research will provide evidence to inform policies and practice

This literature review examines the evidence base related to each of these four pathways. It demonstrates that research does make important and significant contributions to socioeconomic development but that some commonly held assumptions about how research leads to change are not backed up by the evidence. Brief summaries of the findings relating to each path are given below.

Economic growth
Contrary to popular belief, there is little evidence that public investment in research was a major contributor to the ‘Asian development miracle’. Furthermore, the evidence suggests that the potential for research and innovation to contribute to technology-transfer fuelled growth in low-income countries tends to be overestimated.

Human capital
There is a great need for the skills which can be developed through involvement in research in low-income countries. Such skills can be built through higher education, although it is unclear whether involvement of higher education institutions in research contributes to teaching standards. In addition, skills can be built by capacity building programmes. However, many such schemes in the past have had mixed impact.

Products and technologies
Many inventions have had positive impacts on the poor. Public-private partnerships have been particularly successful in funding and incentivising the development of new products and technologies. Some products and technologies have less impact than intended due to a mismatch between the product and actual need.

Evidence-informed policy and programmes
There are two major ways in which research can inform decision makers: it can inform decisions on specific interventions and it can inform decision makers’ general understanding of the context. There are numerous examples of both types of influence. However the evidence also reveals that there are significant gaps in the capacity, incentives and systems necessary to ensure that research is systematically used in decision making.

The paper also reviews approaches to calculating the economic impacts of research investments. Most studies suggest that research leads to positive economic returns. However, these studies are sensitive to a range of assumptions and results must be treated cautiously. The paper ends with a summary of conclusions and a proposed theory of change based on the research evidence presented.

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